The accidental social entrepreneurs
The WIEF initiative AKEPT-WIEF Social Enterprise Forum took place on 22 – 23 October 2018, at ISTAC in Kuala Lumpur. 279 participants attended its 11 sessions manned by 35 speakers. Here is a summary of its Masterclass 2 on ‘Social Enterprise and Community-led Development’ that featured Malaysian social entrepreneurs Yasmin Rasyid and Suzanne Ling.
Both Yasmin Rasyid and Suzanne Ling, during AKEPT-WIEF Social Enterprise Forum’s Masterclass 2, discussed how a social enterprise could be used by local communities to mobilise their own resources in ways to address their own needs, leverage their skills and tradition, grow their social capital and deliver long term change.
The women were passionate and spoke seamlessly about their projects. Their knowledge stemmed, mainly, from experience. They shared a common thread of being accidental social entrepreneurs and thought innovatively when it came to building sustainable businesses. Today, the beneficiaries of their efforts, in return, maintain their dignity, are made to feel useful and have a sustainable way of earning a living.
During the hour and a half session, Yasmin and Suzanne explained the social issues they chose to support through their respective social enterprise very clearly and this resulted in a short question and answers session.
Why social entrepreneurship matters
Yasmin admitted to being an accidental entrepreneur because she didn’t have a business background to begin with. Marine biologist by training, she currently is studying biotech. Besides being president and founder of EcoKnights, she also has a startup of sustainable urban farming solution provider that aims to put a farm in every home.
During the session, Yasmin explained her perspective of why social entrepreneurship matters. ‘It’s because community development has existed for decades and governments can’t be expected to foot the bill each time,’ she said. ‘That’s why NGO or social enterprises step in as intermediary. Generally, we focus on economics, improving livelihood of people and elevating poverty.’
Yasmin listed entrepreneurship, assets and access as her three vital aspects of being an entrepreneur. Access to skills and knowledge, she felt, could help communities build businesses.
‘The term entrepreneurship is often less talked about,’ she began and continued, ‘A good definition of it which I like is, a secret weapon of the business world. Entrepreneurship requires strong emotional intelligence and also cultural intelligence that’ll help us cope with the environment, social and economic issues. The common denominator is people and always be aware of what communities you’re dealing with.’
‘As for assets, I’ll tell you about a Sabahan island where fishing was their main revenue,’ she said. ‘There were NGOs that tried to better their livelihood. But when asked about an alternative revenue, the islanders preferred tourism to fishing. They were taught English, they cleaned up the island, etc. But no tourists came. Why? Because they didn’t own their homes and they couldn’t imagine running a homestay business, for example, if it wasn’t their land. They needed basic assets in place. Then, came fundamental aspects that made sure basics, such as sanitary system, were in place.’
Also, she believed, social capital and how-to market, should be taught to them. ‘If you’re really into profit making, don’t be a social entrepreneur. You need to immerse yourself in the community and put in a lot of effort. It’s about the growth and development of that entity you created,’ Yasmin said.
‘All the science in the world is of no use if you don’t mix in social science. Social entrepreneurship is about making a solid impact, improving the lives of people. Also, entrepreneurship is a little bit diluted when you try to do too much. So, find the 50-50 balance where you live it and experience it outside while studying it from books,’ she concluded.
Cooking up a social storm
Like Yasmin, Suzanne, one of three core founders of The Picha Project, admitted to being an accidental entrepreneur. During the session, Suzanne told of how she had volunteered as a teacher at a refugee school and saw a lot of her students dropped out of school so they could work to help their family. She knew then that a sustainable solution had to be thought of, and when she met a young boy called Picha, from Myanmar, whose mother cooked well, an idea formed.
Today, Picha Project supplies food from refugee cooks which is delivered to your doorstep. Also, the refugee families host meals in their houses. ‘This is a way to experience being with them and to break stereotypes, and to build understanding of their issues as well as their living conditions,’ Suzanne said. All founders of Picha didn’t have a business background when they started Picha, they were all still in university then and were only in their early 20’s.
‘Refugees in Malaysia aren’t recognised as refugees,’ explained Suzanne. ‘So, they fall under the category of illegal immigrant. Which means, the refugees can’t go to school in Malaysia because their status is not recognised in Malaysia. Picha wanted to find a solution for them.’ And so, they did.
‘Our friends were our first clients,’ Suzanne recalled. ‘After four months, we were supplying food by the refugees full-time. Currently, 11 families cook for us and another six are coming on board. They’re from countries including Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Myanmar and Pakistan.’ Furthermore, they serve what they cook best – their native cuisine. ‘The cooks aren’t working for us, they aren’t employed by us, it’s a partnership between us and them. We’re basically giving the government a solution on how to cope with the refugees,’
‘Why do this? We agree that the refugee crisis is an urgent one and it affects us because they’re here in Malaysia. Imagine if no one is willing to help the 16 million refugees. What’s to happen to them when less than 1 per cent get accepted to other countries?’ Suzanne explained.
‘So, here’s a fun, sustainable and delicious way to solve this humanitarian issue. We changed this whole angle of doing good. Instead of just giving money, you buy a service, buy the food. We need everyone to come together – corporate, students, social entrepreneur – to make a change. But on the other hand, if everyone becomes a social entrepreneur, who will buy Picha Project’s food? So, there must be a balance. We need both social and corporate businesses.’ Suzanne said.
How to differentiate between social and sustainable entrepreneurship?
Suzanne: Those are just terms. Profit wise, find out what works for you. Picha works on 50-50 profit sharing. We need profit to pay for things, of course, we want to pay salary because we don’t want to ask for money.
Yasmin: Sustainability is key to ensure your social enterprise to deliver results. I don’t see the difference between the two terms. I wouldn’t be too bogged down by the terms. If a social enterprise doesn’t make a profit, how would you sustain yourself. The profit is used for growth.
Must social enterprises comply with the prevailing government regulations?
Suzanne: Picha is sendirian berhad (sdn bhd) and we pay income tax as well as GST. We try our best to comply to as many regulations as we can.
Yasmin: You don’t comply, you won’t be able to operate. The government can’t be everywhere at the same time, so NGOs mediate social and environmental issues.
How do you balance being an entrepreneur and student?
Yasmin: I don’t have a formula. I run three organisations, I’ve two daughters, I’ve no maid. I just manage. It’s amazing how you can stretch yourself when you understand how to align mind, body and soul. Multitasking is key to resilience. I don’t watch TV at all. I’m particular about my time, I don’t waste time. It’s a lot of discipline.
Suzanne: I was in my final year research [when I started Picha Project]. It was kind of easier to manage my time. Although, my social life was minimal [at the time] but my friends were those who worked with me. Now, as in then, I balance it out by prioritising. Right now, I focus on Picha.